At Such a Time

 By Rev. Kristen Van Stee, Assistant to the Bishop

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  --1 Corinthians 13:12-13

My family is the kind of family that is committed to holding on to relics from the past.  Anything that tells the story of our ancestors is usually kept safe somewhere in the house like a sacred artifact.  Letters, photographs, antique furniture, knick-knacks, and more haunt the rooms of our homes, helping to trigger human memory and the stories they invoke. 

For this reason, when I visit with my grandfather, it is not an unusual activity that we sit down together and dig through one of his many boxes of old papers in an attempt to organize what is there, sifting trash from treasure.  The last time I was with him, we looked through a box of old documents that once belonged to Rev. Dr. R. Homer Anderson who served as the superintendent of the Virginia Synod of the United Lutheran Church of America (one of our Lutheran predecessor bodies) from 1928-1958.  Dr. Anderson was a best friend of my own great-grandfather, who was a Lutheran pastor in the Virginia Synod, which is why my grandfather has a box of his things.

Looking through the stacks of old dusty papers, there were bits and pieces that were quite interesting, but I was shocked into stillness when I read one letter in particular:

In December of 1942, a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entrance into World War II, Dr. Anderson wrote these words addressed to the pastors serving in the Virginia Synod:

“Dear Pastor,

During 1942 we have often seen this statement: ‘When the world is at its worst, the Church must be at her best.’

There are times in the life of men and of nations when something extra is required; and there are times when pastors and congregations are called upon to go ‘all-out’ for the Kingdom of God.  Unusual demands of a world in suffering, sorrow, and uncertainty cannot be met with life as usual on our part.  Special needs are met with that extra something—that great sacrifice, greater devotion, greater preaching, greater works of abiding love and unfaltering loyalty.  No hospital would close its doors during an epidemic!  At such a time the physicians and nurses would give their all of strength and energy to meet the unusual situation—to save life, arrest disease, and restore health.

In this time of world-wide tragedy God’s people cannot relax their efforts.  They are called upon to give as they never gave before, to work as they never worked before, to pray as they never prayed before.  The one and only hope is the Great Physician.  He expects us to release His Gospel of hope and peace upon a world of despair and strife…..”

Although Dr. Anderson wrote these words eighty years ago and in a very different context from our own, I am nonetheless moved by his writing.  After nearly a year of global pandemic, those alive today may now feel a small kinship with those past generations who weathered their own difficult world-altering challenges, like our ancestors who lived through the Spanish Flu Epidemic and two World Wars.  
For the church today, we have already pushed ourselves hard and I know we are all feeling exhausted.  I don’t think Dr. Anderson’s suggestion for the pastors to “do more” is necessarily helpful for us today; everyone (including pastors) has already been working at peak capacity, and no one more so than the healthcare workers and essential workers of society.  But Dr. Anderson does reflect beautifully on what the mission of the church is in times of despair: we are called to reflect faith, hope, and love, the Good News of Christ, to a world desperately in need of it.  

The strange thing about faith, hope, and love, is that they are not dependent on future guarantees.  For the people of 1942, there was no evidence to suggest that the world would get better quickly.  Rather, the people trying to look into their immediate future must have been terrified to think about what the next year would bring: more rationing, more families separated, more violence, more war.  But faith, hope, and love are the gifts from God that flourish in the darkest times, especially when the future is uncertain.  These gifts are a precious vaccine against despair.  

Today in 2021, there are no guarantees as to when the worst of the current pandemic will pass.  We have no idea when life can return to some semblance of “normal” and the burden of our current sacrifices will ease.  But Christ our Great Physician, who had compassion on the endless crowds of sick people, has compassion on us too.  The Holy Spirit fills us with these most precious gifts, ones that we desperately need for ourselves, but that are not limited in supply.   There is enough faith, hope, and love for each of us to have our fill and to share with our neighbors.  Even though we may be exhausted and see now in a mirror only dimly, this is the light we need shining in the darkness. 

Filled with the gifts of the Spirit, faith, hope, and love, we join our prayers with the saints who have come before us for the sake of a world in need:

“Eternal God, amid all the turmoil and changes of the world your love is steadfast and your strength never fails.  In this time of danger and trouble, be to us a sure guardian and rock of defense.  Guide the leaders of the globe with your wisdom, comfort those in distress, and grant us courage and hope to face the future; through Jesus Christ, our Great Physician.  Amen”.   --Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 76


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